Pitt baseball is going to look different this season in a variety of ways.
Mike Bell, Pitt’s second-year head coach, remade the roster this offseason, adding 21 new players.
“It’s not a secret, we were brought here to change some things,” said Bell, who spent seven years at Florida State as the associate head coach before taking the Pitt job in July 2018. “One of the first things we had to do was evaluate the current roster, what we had, and try to put together a roster that’s going to compete at a high level in the ACC.”
Of the 21 new players — the most for any ACC team — ten are true freshmen, nine come from junior colleges and two are transfers from other NCAA Division I schools.
“We needed to fill some holes immediately,” Bell said. “It’s not the end-all, fix of everything. But it’s a part of a process.
“Recruiting at this stage is done three, four, five years in advance. When you’re coming into it, a lot of the top caliber guys — four-star, five-stars, if you want to call them that — are already picked over. So you’re kind of piecing some things together until you can get caught back up to speed.”
And that’s what Bell has done to a team that went 21-34 last year and 8-22 in the ACC. Four players in Pitt’s projected lineup were not with the program a year ago. At least two scheduled starting pitchers did not throw at Pitt in 2019.
Getting all of those new personalities to mesh in the offseason was a chief task for Bell and his coaching staff.
“It’s an acclimation process,” he said. “We’ve talked about it from day one. One of the keys for this ball club coming together as one group and one unit is getting to know each other.
“When you have a lot of new faces around, a lot of new guys at new positions, new bodies, it’s not just how you play the game, but how you do it collectively, as a team.”
Pitt’s strength will rest in the cavernous outfield of Charles L. Cost Field. A second-team All-ACC selection in Nico Popa, promising sophomore Kyle Hess and a JUCO transfer in Jordan Anderson will anchor the three starting spots. Ron Washington will be the designated hitter, but can also play in the outfield.
But pressure will come to every position by all of the new players in the program.
“This Fall gave us the opportunity to really gel as a team and get to know each other, said Popa, a Pittsburgh native and Seton LaSalle High School grad. “Those guys are really hungry, too. They’re coming in hungry, wanting to play, wanting to win.”
Popa enteres his senior season after a junior year that was nothing short of sensational. He hit .353 at the plate — nearly doubling his batting average from his sophomore year — with a career-best eight home runs and 39 RBI. Now he looks to take the next step.
“It’s pretty much the same thing, just a little fine-tuning,” he said of his offseason. “But just sticking to the same approach, try to get the job done and fun while doing it, for the last go-round.”
Bell also added to the coaching staff this offseason, bringing in former Neshannock High School and Florida State standout John Sansone to his staff, something Bell feels will help with recruiting in the region.
And beyond the makeup of its occupants, Charles L. Cost Field will have a new look in 2020. The turf has been replaced, with a massive panther head logo emblazoned onto the outfield grass. The dugouts, outfield wall and scoreboard have received upgrades to match Pitt’s new colors and branding.
It’s unreal,” said Washington, a power bat with good speed that has, along with many off his teammates, added noticeable size this offseason. “We’ve been talking about it for years and it’s so nice to finally see it in action. We’re so close to having, basically, a brand new stadium. It’s going to be really nice to play here.”
Sophomore Billy Corcoran will anchor the rotation after putting up a 3.80 ERA over 68.2 innings as a freshman. The bullpen will likely be where Pitt’s top arm will reside, as Chase Smith — who had a 2.72 ERA last year — returns to that group.
The infield will have the biggest question marks. Catcher, first base and third base positions will likely be taken by new players, while second baseman Sky Duff and shortstop David Yanni, a heavy bat who racked up nine home runs last season, are back.
Bell’s desired to change the culture in Pittsburgh has permeated through to his players, who are wanting to take his message onto the field and take Pitt to new heights in the ultra-competitive ACC.
“He’s a great coach,” Popa said of Bell. “He comes from a great background. He knows the game, he knows how to win. He did a ton of winning throughout his career and I think he has this program headed in the right direction.”
“I like to win,” added Yanni. “I don’t want to lose anymore. I’m ready to win. If putting up numbers is going to help that, that’s what I’m going to strive for. Everyone else on the team feels the same way.
“You win a couple of times and you get that taste and you want some more. So I think that we’re going to be consistent. We have the drive and the passion on this team to put up some wins this year.”
But first, Bell has to get the team’s mindset in a spot to compete, and win, right away.
“Ultimately, we all want the same thing,” he said. “We’re here to win games and win championships. How can we do it, as a team?”